Don Rickles died in Los Angeles on Thursday, April 6, as the result of kidney failure. He was 90-years-old. Rickles had been a stand-up comedian since the 1950s and became famous as an insult comic, especially after he heckled Frank Sinatra in the crowd at one of his shows, telling the famous crooner, “Make yourself comfortable, Frank — hit somebody.” Sinatra cracked up, and the two became friends.
But that wasn’t the only member of the Rat Pack who took a shine to Rickles. As Dean Martin told the comedian’s audience at the Sahara Hotel Casbar Lounge in Las Vegas, “Don Rickles is the funniest man in show business. But don’t go by me; I’m drunk.” The comedian really hit it big after he started appearing on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in 1965. He called Carson “dum dum” and Carson ironically dubbed him “Mr. Warmth.”
“There’s a difference between an actual insult and a friendly jab. So I don’t think I’m offensive onstage … I like to think I’m like the guy who goes to the office Christmas party Friday night, insults some people but still has his job Monday morning,” Rickles said about his act during an interview with the New York Daily News in 1996. Indeed, he walked the fine line expertly enough to remain a beloved comedy figure throughout his life and career, even winning over fans in a new generation when he started voicing Mr. Potato Head in the groundbreaking “Toy Story” films.
“Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” a documentary by John Landis about Rickles’s life and career, was made in 2007 and aired on HBO. Rickles won an Emmy on his first and only nomination for that film: Best Individual Performance in a Variety Program — the last year that category was ever given out.
“It’s a mistake,” Rickles said upon accepting the prize (watch below). “I’m just stunned by this. I’ve been in the business 55 years and the biggest award I got was an ashtray from the Friars in New York.” He also poked fun at David Letterman and Clint Eastwood in that speech, and thanked producer Mike Richardson, “who came up with a money truck and said, ‘Here’s four dollars, Jew, try to make it work.'”